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How President Harry Truman Became A Unique Ally Of Israel

Truman’s decision to recognize the new country of Israel was fundamental for the existential question of Israel’s right to exist.

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Fifty-one years ago, on Dec. 26, 1972, one of our most surprising presidents, Harry S. Truman, slipped out of life into eternity at the age of 88. Even in his ’70s and ’80s he was admirably fit and journalists had trouble keeping up with him on his morning walks. Truman left a legacy of not only a fit retiree but of a principled person who could change, not so much with the times, but when his principles confronted new challenges and required sometimes courageous stands on the issues of his day.

Truman was considered an average Southern politician when he arrived in the U.S. Senate in 1934, but after 1940 as the head of the Truman Committee, which reduced waste and inefficiency in the wartime contracts, Truman rose to prominence in Washington D.C. and across the country. In NPR’s senior editor and executive producer Steve Drummond’s new book on Truman’s committee, “The Watchdog: How the Truman Committee Battled Corruption and Helped Win World War Two,” Drummond writes:

“Remarkably, (Truman’s) committee is run honestly, it’s nonpartisan. It’s very careful to get the facts straight. It’s not grabbing headlines or trying to make Truman into some kind of cult figure… And by doing all that, he ends up being a pretty respected, extremely popular public figure and slowly rises to the top of people who the Democratic leaders are looking for who would join Franklin Roosevelt on the ticket in 1944.”

After the Normandy landings of 1944 as the Allied forces closed in on the Nazi stronghold in Europe, one of the major issues seldom mentioned among the leadership of the “free” nations was the fate of the Jewish people at the hands of the evil Nazi regime. Leaders like President Roosevelt, as well as others in Europe, were very much aware of the extermination of millions of Jews, but political expediency and lingering antisemitism were still ugly realities even in the Allied world. Many would either ignore or simply punt on what was sinisterly called “the Jewish Question.”

In September of that year David Ben-Gurion, who would be the most important architect of the formation of the new Jewish homeland later in 1948 and the first Israeli prime minister, spoke out against the immoral silence concerning the fate of the Jewish people:

“What have you done to us, you freedom-loving peoples, guardians of justice, defenders of the high principles of democracy and of the brotherhood of man? What have you allowed to be perpetrated against a defenseless people while you stood aside and let it bleed to death, without offering help or succour, without calling on the fiends to stop, in the language of retribution which alone they would understand. Why do you profane our pain and wrath with empty expressions of sympathy which ring like a mockery in the ears of millions of the damned in the torture house of Nazi Europe?”

In the U.S. presidential election that November of 1944 the “southern” senator from Missouri was chosen to join Roosevelt on the Democrat ticket. Few knew or expected that Harry Truman would go beyond party and cultural expectations to eventually address the pain of Europe’s “torture house.” Quite literally none expected that the following year Roosevelt would pass away and Harry Truman would become the 33rd president of the United States.

In our family, Harry Truman was known as “Uncle Harry” long before he represented Uncle Sam. Our family was divided by the Civil War, with the older sons of Jacob Young fighting for the North and the younger sons fighting for the South. My great-great-grandfather, on the northern side, was first cousin to Harry Truman’s mother. But the two sides of the family, Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists, hardly spoke to each other for almost two generations. Harry was considered part of the southern, “slave-holding” Youngs even into the 20th century. And the southern Democrats who worked to get Truman on the 1944 ticket expected him to represent their viewpoints and values.

But Harry was an outlier in notable ways. He was outspoken and opinionated all through his political career; the oft-repeated slogan used in his electoral fight for the presidency, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” came from a supporter at a railroad stop in the campaign. He would later say that he didn’t give anyone hell, rather he told them the truth and they thought it was hell.

If Harry was anything, he was a moral person. The absolute sense of the difference between right and wrong had marked his career as an officer in WWI, as a straight arrow County Judge or commissioner of Jackson County (Kansas City) when corruption was a way of life. And then as a U.S. Senator during WWII when his “Committee on Military Affairs” saved the U.S. as much as $15 billion (more than $230 billion in today’s dollars). Truman’s later de-segregating of the armed forces was the first major government step in rolling back the culture of prejudice in the U.S. that had reigned from after the Civil War until the modern period.

Perhaps most notably this “southern” president was the first modern leader of the United States to take a firm stance against the antisemitism that had existed just below the surface for far too long.

When Harry Truman told his cabinet in 1948 that he was going to recognize the new country of Israel (without yet knowing what its name would be), most of his closest collaborators and friends vehemently opposed such a move.

Truman always considered that he had made the right decision, and in many ways, his was an extremely lonely choice; not backed by a majority of his cabinet or by most members of his own political party.

When Harry Truman made his announcement on May 14, 1948, the very day that the British mandate in Palestine expired and 11 minutes after Israel proclaimed itself a nation, the United States became the first country in the world to recognize the new State of Israel. A few countries followed suit, including the Soviet Union three days later, but most reaction was vociferous opposition, and some threatened to take their countries out of the UN over Truman’s move.

Decades later when Clark M. Clifford, President Truman’s Special Counsel from 1946 to 1950 and main architect of the Truman decision, reminisced about the debates in the White House itself, he made it clear that there were undercurrents of antisemitism even among Truman’s cabinet members.

While it’s true that Harry Truman had a soft spot in his heart for the Jewish people because of his Baptist and Biblical upbringing, and while it’s true he had close Jewish friends, and while it’s also true that he was deeply moved by the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazi’s, these were not the main reasons that he came to his momentous decision. Looking at the actual arguments advanced at the time by Clifford and others who defended Truman’s move, it’s evident that the reason Israel was recognized was that they wanted a liberal democratic nation to exist in an area of the world where such a phenomenon was woefully absent. Not much has changed in the past 75 years.

There is no doubt that Truman was more deeply appreciated for his actions in Israel itself than here in the United States. President Truman’s decision was fundamental for the existential question of Israel’s right to exist as well as for the Jewish people to finally have a homeland where they would be free of millennia of persecution and pogroms. One sees in Harry Truman’s step a clear sense of right and wrong, but at the same time, there was a fierce spirit of courage in this lonely but righteous decision.

Ben-Gurion would write later about an encounter in New York in 1961 with Truman when the former president was now 77 years of age and eight years departed from public service:

“At our last meeting, after a very interesting talk, just before [Truman] left me – it was in a New York hotel suite – I told him that as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our new state so quickly and his steadfast support since then had given him an immortal place in Jewish history. As I said that, tears suddenly sprang to his eyes. And his eyes were still wet when he bade me goodbye. I had rarely seen anyone so moved. I tried to hold him for a few minutes until he had become more composed, for I recalled that the hotel corridors were full of waiting journalists and photographers. He left. A little while later, I too had to go out, and a correspondent came to me to ask, ‘Why was President Truman in tears when he left you?’”


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